From Russia with [dark] love

DPO presents Russian Masters

By Joe Aiello
Photo: Concertmaster Jessica Hung will perform with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for Russian Masters on March 15-16

Remember the TV situation comedy “Cheers” about a bar in Boston and the regulars who met to have a drink, kick back, carry on a conversation and just generally have a good time?

I watched quite a few episodes of “Cheers,” and frankly I only remember one and that specifically for an odd allusion to Russian character. In it, graduate student, writer and waitress Dianne Chambers – portrayed by Shelley Long – has a discussion with one of the patrons concerning Russian poetry and literature. The patron cites a Russian poem about a penniless Russian couple with an uncertain future whose pet dog dies. What I remember most is the poem’s final line that concerns the dead dog and goes something like, “At least we will have meat this winter.”

Now, I personally know several Russians, émigrés to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, and they are splendid people, who – despite the happiness engendered by having a new homeland and political freedom – still bear a sense of muted depression born of their life under Soviet communist rule. And they have told me that, historically, this muted depression goes back farther, long before the Bolshevik uprising, to a time where the economic disparity between the classes was a massive weight under which many psyches were crushed.

And this feeling needed desperately to find expression, something that – in a communist state – was for many unbearable if not, indeed, physically dangerous. The best, if not always the safest, way to express that feeling was with music.

On Friday, March 15 and Saturday, March 16 at 8 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, Music Director Neal Gittleman and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will present Russian Masters, the sixth concert in the DPO 2012-2013 Imagine Season’s Miami Valley and Good Samaritan Hospitals Classical Series.

Walk into the Mead Theatre on either of the two performance evenings and you will notice a plethora of musicians and percussion instruments not usually resident for concerts – a bass drum, celestas, cymbals, glockenspiels, harps, snare drums, tambourines, tom-toms and xylophones. Emotional. Visceral. That’s Russian music. Only masterful composers could create it, and only talented musicians can perform it properly.

And Russian Masters has both.

It begins with Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to the opera “Russlan and Ludmilla.” Describing this overture, the words “enthusiastic,” “quick moving,” “lyrical” and “fantastic” come to mind. And fittingly so. After all, the story of the opera comes from a fairy tale by Russian author Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin about a young, engaged woman who is kidnapped by a devilish dwarf and is – after many incredible, bizarre adventures – rescued by her fiancé and married.

Here endeth all sweetness and light.

DPO Concertmaster Jessica Hung then performs the Shostakovich “Violin Concerto No. 1.” To say that Shostakovich wrote this concerto in a manner which can only be described as “defiant” would be understatement. In the late-1940s Stalin-era Soviet Union, particularly Russia, all composers, playwrights and dancers lived under the scrutiny of constant state censorship; censors often cited political and ideological reasons for banning works. Many times, the actual reasons were petty and personal – an exercise in mean-spirited bureaucracy. Shostakovich, therefore, found it necessary to write his complex and abstract “Violin Concerto No. 1” to satisfy himself in the late ‘40s and wait until after Stalin died in 1953 to publish and premiere it.

The Shostakovich concerto is extremely challenging. Ask DPO Concertmaster Jessica Hung.  She is the woman who will perform it.

“The Shostakovich First Violin Concerto is monumental,” Hung said. “Almost symphonic in scope (spanning four movements and an extended solo cadenza), and the challenges of performing it are inextricably linked to its historical context. Since I cannot truly know what Stalinist Russia was like and can only imagine that atmosphere of oppression and fear that Shostakovich lived and breathed every day, I must try my best to extrapolate from my own human experience of fear, in a way similar to Method acting.

“There is a captivating sense of darkness that pervades the entire concerto, from the repressed opening all the way through to the wild finale.  The third movement, ‘Passacaglia,’ is the emotional heart of the concerto, as if enough layers of cynicism and suspicion have finally been peeled away to reveal simply a deep anguish.  The piece is extremely technically difficult, to be sure, but doing service to its emotional depth is the real challenge.”

The concert concludes with Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2,” a symphony exhibiting soaring melodies and great strength that brings the evening to a brilliant climax. The first movement is uniquely Russian in its atmosphere of despondency, doom and sadness. The second movement is almost the reverse of the first in mood, oozing fire, color, hopefulness and a sense of freedom. The emotional, overwhelming and lyrical third movement conjures up images of things undone, dreams unrealized and hopes deserted. And the final movement offers hope based on our own abilities to trust in tomorrow – it bursts out, becomes furious, burns suddenly and brightly, abounds with life, stresses and overwhelms.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will present Russian Masters ON Friday, March 15 and Saturday, March 16. Both concert evenings at 7 p.m. in the Mead Theatre, DPO Music Director Neal Gittleman will conduct a Take Note pre-concert discussion. Tickets $9 – $59. For more information, call 888.228.3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joe Aiello at JoeAiello@daytoncitypaper.com


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A member of the Writers Guild of America, native Daytonian Joe Aiello is the author of numerous screenplays, non-fiction books, novels, TV sitcom pilots, news features, magazine articles, and documentaries. He fills his spare time coaching College, A, AA amateur and semi-pro baseball teams; answering trivia quizzes; and denigrating himself attempting to play golf. Reach Joe at JoeAiello@daytoncitypaper.com.

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